The Passage of Time (Originally published on the Gilded Serpent)
By Amel Tafsout
Since I was a child I was fascinated by dancers, mostly by performers
with a “respectful age” - a usage in French meaning elderly
people. I remember the first time I saw the Flamenco dancer
called “La Chana” from Cumbre Flamenca.
Her performance brought tears to my eyes; not only was she technically
outstanding, but she had a whole persona, stage presence and
her aura… no younger dancer could be compared to her. Many times
I went to see the show to watch her again and again!
When I went to Cuba, I was blessed to study with a master dancer:
Gregorio. We didn’t share the same language (only a little bit
of French) but we managed to communicate through the dance and
the music. He was much older than I, but his experience and
knowledge of his art was amazing. He was also a singer and both
his dance and his voice brought me a very special learning experience.
I came to love watching elderly couples dancing the Cuban rumba
together, everything flowing, not needing to be so technical
and gliding together as if they were walking above water. It
is a joy to see their mature grace and joy, unencumbered by
the frantic turns and jumps that young performers are doing
in competitive ballroom dancing.
Picture on right: Amel's Grandmother. Picture Below: Celia
I remember the day I went to see a special concert of the Cuban
Diva Celia Cruz (may she rest in peace)... Her voice and her
energy were incredible. Though she must have been in her mid-sixties
at that time, when she started dancing she became 16 years old
again. She enjoyed every movement and everyone could see that
she was a master dancer. Despite her respectful age she was
very sensual and very playful. While she danced, her joy of
life became so contagious that even very reserved British people,
men and women, young and seniors, joined in dancing and clapping.
Another performer of advancing age, close to my heart, is the
legendary Algerian "Empress of Rai music", Cheikha Rimitti (May
her soul rest in peace). As a child I already knew of her, but
Algerian people spoke her name with a very quiet voice - her
music was not accepted by the establishment and her songs were
listened to in secret by the male population.
She struggled against the odds, growing up as a homeless orphan
in the west of Algeria, a French colony at the time. During
World War II, the presence of the French military encouraged
the rise of café bars. This changed the culture and the lives
Cheikha Rimitti led a wild life, dancing until early morning
with a band of traditional musicians with whom she sang and
played percussion. Her early musical influences were traditional
female performers, the Shikhat and the Meddahat.
The Meddahat are singers and musicians who play violin and percussion,
performimg only for women. The Shikhat are women performers
in Western Algeria and Morocco who perform often for men and
women, singing and dancing at various festivities, including
weddings, births and religious ceremonies.
The Shikhat are marginalized in so-called respectable society
because they overstep cultural boundaries by singing about their
intimate private lives. Today, a typical troupe includes up
to ten women. However, once these women become famous and begin
recording, they start a solo career. They sing in the language
of the street about love, immigration, and the struggle to survive
poverty. In many cases their lyrics are intentionally ambiguous,
enabling them to escape censorship.
Picture above right: "This is my Cuban Dance teacher Gregorio
(known as Goyo)"
Picture below right: Cheikha Rimitti performing where you can
see her dancing and singing.
This is a particular technique of "women’s language" which allows
for poetic audacities and daring gestures. It is very common
for these women to become increasingly popular as they grow
older, as "the passage of time" does not affect their performance
and enhances the respect they command.
Cheikha Rimiti’s first improvised verses were inspired by the
terrible epidemics, such as the plague in the region mentioned
in Albert Camus’ 1947 novel “The Plague”. She established her
career singing about the hardship of women’s lives and the repugnant
attitude of men towards their young brides.
In her live performances, Cheikha Rimitti had the power to transport
Algerians living abroad back to their roots. With facial expressions,
her typical shoulder movements as her famous dance steps, even
at the age of 78 she gave free reign to her talents, which included
a superb comedic sense. Well-known for her hennaed hands beautifully
decorated with Berber tattoos, she used them to introduce the
song and play the bendir frame drum. In authentic Wahrani dress
and jewelry, she appeared like a mythical priestess. When I
met her in her later years, she would really come alive only
on stage; during the day she would look very tired.
But on stage! She became a very young girl, dancing, singing
and playing like a teenager. Her manager would try to give her
a cue to stop but she would ignore him and carried on, enjoying
herself with her audience. That is the moment where she was
alive, living every second of her art.
She didn't perform in large venues until 1982. Late in life,
she appeared all over the world to adoring audiences. She died
in 2006, just after her big performance in the
Zenith Theater in Paris, at the "respectable age" of 83. Cheikha
Rimitti was a great inspiration to me. When she met me the first
time she told me that I reminded her of herself. I was very
honored by her statement as she represented so much for me –
the connection to my own roots.
Meeting Rimitti, I realized how much I missed the women of my
family, especially my grandmother (May she rest in peace). My
grand-mother was like a Queen: She walked like a Queen… Spoke
like a Queen… Danced like a Queen. She had an aura that everybody
liked to be around.
She kept her beauty, her elegance and her authority as she aged.
I remember how she put her head-dress on, how much time she
took to wrap her melhafa (similiar to a Tunisian meliya) around
her body, how she wore her jewelry. Every gesture became a dance
movement, a ritual honoring life.
She taught me to honor myself and others as she did. She taught
me to know when to listen and be quiet and when to speak. She
taught me to pray… I had to practice many times while she was
watching me from her chair and listening to me reciting my prayers
to make sure that I was performing them correctly. She was very
strict about it and I was trying my best because I wanted her
to be proud of me. I had to try not to look at her, to avoid
bursting out laughing from embarrassment. Sometimes I had to
prepare my little prayer rug parallel to hers and we would perform
the prayer together. When I look back at my childhood I remember
how much fun I had with my grandmother, how much I respect her,
and I am filled with gratitude for all her teaching. She taught
me so much and I cherish these memories very much.
I used to dance with her holding her hand. As a child, I had
to lift my head to look at her, which gave me the impression
that she was so tall that I couldn’t reach her. I remember the
feel of the fabric of her dress caressing my face. Her dress
was dancing with me, helping me to move as well as comforting
me in telling me "Everything is alright just look at how I am
doing it!" It was such a beautiful feeling to go with the flow
and play with my grandmother’s dress!
In Algeria, as in so many other cultures, we learn dancing at
home with our grandmothers, mothers and aunties. The first lesson
would be during a celebration. As a child, we would try to dance
the dance of older women, and imitate them because we wanted
to be grown up so badly. It is very common that during a wedding
ceremony the grandmother is the first person to open the dance.
The grandmother’s dance performance is considered as a great
blessing to her grandchild. It is also a way for the grandmother’s
to make the situation more relaxed and prepare her grandchild
for her future life.
The women’s tradition of offering a dance as a wedding present
to the bride is very common in the Arab World. What is beautiful
about it is how we honor these grandmothers for their wisdom
and their knowledge. It saddens me to observe in the west how
every one is manipulated by the media to believe that women
to be beautiful must be young and slim. I see the elderly segregated
into special communities and excluded from the mainstream society.
In so many other cultures less affected by the worship of youth,
seniors are included in multi-generational families and everyone
feels concerned about them.
Fortunately, other artists are at work engaging directly with
issues that relate to performance and aging. Recently I was
honored to be invited by my dear friend, Indian dance performer
Bisakha Saker, to be part of the first “Marks of Time” conference,
held in Liverpool, England, which explored performance practice
in advancing years. I was very excited to be part of a conference
that touches on performance and aging, a subject not often addressed
although it does concern all dance styles. The conference was
run in partnership with Hope University. 80 participants and
performers attended, and this groundbreaking event was a real
inspiration for all concerned. The highlight was Bisakha Saker’s
performance with a poem called “ The Two Pots.”
Another inspiration is Germaine Acogny, an African dance master
who I met when I lived in Germany in the 1980s. A legend in
her native Senegal and beyond, she is a major figure in African
dance, blending contemporary dance with traditional African
styles. Germaine continues to perform, and talking about the
differences between different generations, she said: “I cannot
do what they can do, yet they cannot do what I can do!” In addition
to performing her own works and choreographing for her dance
company Jant-Bi, she generously shares her wisdom and experience
with young dancers and encourages them to develop their own
individual styles of expression. To see her perform is to see
into the core of the dance, which never ages, and to recognize
the power that can only come from decades of experience.
Picture on right: Bisakha Saker
Outside the world of MTV, professional female performers are
respected well into their senior years. Wherever music and dance
has a function in their society to communicate traditions, the
singers, musicians and dancers are respected.
Now living in the United States, I find it a great loss to see
the extent to which social dance as such has disappeared, replaced
by dance as stage performance.
Stage dance choreographers require dancers at the extremes of
athletic competence and the promoters expect extremes of standards
for appearance - tall, thin, young… do senior professional dancers
have no chance? Should we all give up as we age past these specific
Middle Eastern dance became very popular in the West and specifically
in the U.S., largely through the social need for empowerment
among women yearning to feel acceptance in their own, un-MTV
bodies. Today we see the evidence that this dance style too
has become demanding and competitive, as we witness the phenomena
of the “ Belly Dance Super Stars”. This representation to US
and European audiences that it is the top of the genre has systematically
excluded more experienced mature dancers known for their knowledge
and their motivation to bring to western audiences an understanding
of the respect this dance form demands.
I wonder if the producers of these shows are so confused
about competence and age! It is likely that they are underestimating
the willingness of their audience to appreciate beauty in aging
In general, Western society needs to extend to senior dance
performers the respect they seem fully able to grant older singers
or musicians. As long as I am healthy and enjoy the dance, I
will dance, and feel connected with my roots and the spirit
of my ancestors.
Germaine Acogny my African dance teacher and friend